Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #19

Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy, Don’t Be A Hero

I haven’t completed my empirical study on this issue – I’m still waiting on my Canada Council for the Arts funding to come through – but my preliminary findings would indicate that the 1970s were the Golden Age of musical cheese. A quick look at the Billboard charts will steer you towards enough product for the largest fondue party of all-time, with chart-toppers like Ray Stevens’ “Everything is Beautiful”, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”, Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers”, Morris Albert’s “Feelings”, Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”, and, of course, Paul Anka and Odia Coates’ “(You’re) Having My Baby” all making fine contributions. But none can match the all-encompassing melted Gruyere mastery of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods when they put “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” on tape.

I was aware of the band through the pages of “Tiger Beat”, though the amount of coverage seemed to far outweigh their cultural import. (This was a common issue with the magazine: for example, see De Franco, Tony or Eure, Wesley or Sherman, Bobby.) I certainly was very familiar with “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero”, but can’t say I knew at the time who was singing it: when looking up the song recently, I was sure it was Paper Lace’s slightly earlier version that was the Canadian hit, but in fact Bo and company topped both the RPM and Billboard charts while Paper Lace (which made its own important contribution to musical Emmental with “The Night Chicago Died”, reaching number one that same glorious summer of 1974) barely made a dent in either country with the song. I usually have a pretty good memory about such things, which says a lot about how much I’ve thought about this song in the past 48 years.

But, my god, why would I have thought about it? Rolling Stone readers voted it the 8th worst song of the 1970s, and with no disrespect intended to list-topper Rick Dees, who knew that “Disco Duck” was awful (and that awfulness was part of its charm), or the other un-notables in spots two through seven, I really think the Golden Toilet (yes, I invented that award, but it’s apropos) should have gone to “Billy” in a walkaway.

Sometimes, I revisit these songs with a measure of trepidation, thinking time will have dimmed my ardour. With “Billy” it was the opposite: would it, like a fine wine, have improved with time? I need not have concerned myself. “Billy” is, in fact, like a whine: something that gets worse the longer it goes on. I don’t blame the band: they were just trying to make a living, and this certainly helped draw those crowds to Mott’s Berry Farm (a mythical place that played an outsized part in my musical imagination thanks to “Tiger Beat”). When it comes to reading the musical zeitgeist, they couldn’t have made a better choice.

Considering the subject matter – Billy heads off to war and gets himself killed by doing the one thing his girl told him not to do (a mistake men have been making in endless contexts since the first caveman made note of a well-turned ankle) – it’s an amazingly cheery-sounding song, all jaunty Civil War-era marching band snare drum and toot-toot whistles. I’m sure it came off better live, because on record it gives the impression that no actual instruments were played; rather, it sounds like it came out of a late-night GarageBand session that ended when someone said, “Fuck it, I’m putting it up on my Soundcloud.” Some unidentified perv is close enough so that, while he’s eyeballing Billy’s “young and lovely fiance”, he hears her instructing the young soldier to let his fellow warriors take the fall rather than put his own life on the line. Really, if that was going to be the plan, Billy would have been doing everyone a favour by just staying at home. But he goes, tosses his lady’s advice in the dumpster, and gets taken down by some eagle-eyed (or lucky) Johnny Reb. And after Billy saved her from the Confederates, the ungrateful young lady, rather than carrying her virginity to the grave, drops the letter from Edwin Stanton into the garbage, and, maybe (I’m speculating here), goes looking for the narrator, who for some reason did not sign up for duty in the Union army and thus may have been the one un-maimed man of marrying age left in their town in 1865.

Anyway, that was a lot of reading between the lines.

Look, it’s not a good song (I need to be careful here with my “there is no bad music” ethos), but I don’t hate it, and I get why it was a hit. At that moment in time, bubblegum sounds ruled. Pop music often got too smart for its own good in the 1960s, and there was a lot of reactionary dumbing down in the first few years of the 1970s. Radio was painful to listen to a lot of the time, but the young people who rejected what they were being fed went out and started bands of their own to change this. So, yes, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” can take some of the credit (just go with me on this) for “God Save the Queen” and ”I Wanna Be Sedated”.

Thank you, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, for your service.